Tuesday, 23 December 2008

3rd Sunday of Advent Year B

The Rose coloured candle and vestment signal that our search is drawing to an end. Our salvation is close at hand and so we allow ourselves the latitude of rejoicing as the Entrance Antiphon suggests “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near”. The central theme that runs through both the first reading and the Gospel is the nearness of salvation. The writer of the first reading declares that he has been sent by God to usher in the age of salvation. In the Gospel, John the Baptist announces that he is not the Saviour but the one who prepares the way for the Saviour who is already amongst the people. Finally, St Paul gives practical guide to the Thessalonians on how they are to wait for the 2nd Coming of the Saviour.

When salvation is near, we rejoice. How? We get a clue from the Gospel. In the Gospel, the religious authorities sent priests and Levites to enquire about John’s identity. The replies given by John didn’t quite satisfy them because they wanted a more definitive answer to bring back to their higher-ups. They were looking for the Messiah and judging from the replies that they got, they weren’t satisfied. The short of it, they were expecting more but seemed to have gotten less. They were looking for salvation but failed to recognise its presence.

Thus, to rejoice means we must recognise the presence of our salvation.

What is salvation or what does it consist of? First of all, it means different things to different people. For some, salvation is confined to the spiritual realm and is defined as salvation from sin and eternal damnation. Whilst it is true that salvation is from sin and eternal damnation but such a conception of salvation tends to be narrow and sometimes selfish because it is restricted to “my salvation”. What about the salvation of others? So, personal salvation can be a blinkered existence in which a person tries to save his or her soul for the next world. The good thing is that these days, few people think like that. On the one hand, this may be explained by the fact that people generally do not have a firm belief in the after-life. Even if they did, it is probably vague and not really helpful or hopeful. On the other hand, and this is more insidious because “personal salvation” has given birth to an explosion of self-help programmes. These are helpful but the assumption behind these programmes is that we can bestow upon ourselves salvation and self-improvement is the path to wholeness. The truth is that try as we might like to, we cannot save ourselves.

A good thing about the narrow view of salvation is that our consciousness has expanded beyond the boundary of this “personal salvation”. The first reading echoes our broadened vision of salvation as liberty to captives, freedom to those in prisons; and to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord. In this broadened vision, salvation, even if it were for the next world, must begin with this world. People who do not appreciate Church involvement in political matters may have failed to understand that the new heavens and the new earth can only begin when we are engaged to change this world. They have confused political involvement with partisan politics [1]. Thus, we should continue to speak up against the unjust use of laws against those who do not share the majority view because salvation begins here and now.

However, broadened as the horizon may be, the challenge is not to perceive salvation purely in terms of political and social liberation. Salvation is not just freedom from oppression, freedom from hunger and freedom from rules and regulation. Salvation is more.

Like the priests and the Levites in the Gospel, we too search for salvation. The purely spiritual or the secular view of salvation does not provide us with a satisfactory answer. Gaudete Sunday proposes that our search for salvation should end with Jesus Christ and not in any programme, spiritual or secular. In fact, Isaiah’s pronouncement is realised in none other than the person of Jesus Christ Himself. That is why John the Baptist is the voice in the wilderness crying out: Make a straight way for the Lord. Advent’s preparation is for the coming of the Lord who alone is our salvation. The question to ask is what are we expecting? Are we like the Levites and the priests somewhat lost in our search?

What we do for ourselves may give us satisfaction in life. Self-help, self-improvement or political and social liberation may bring about a sense of achievement but still they will fall short of the salvation that we deeply desire because salvation is not what we grant ourselves. Salvation comes from being near to Christ our Lord. When He is near, we are joyful. The trick is to recognise Him as present amongst us. The sole pink candle helps us to focus our attention not so much on the pleasures surrounding Christmas but on the joy that Christmas is to bring to those who are waiting for the Lord.
[1] In
Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict XVI says that the Church recognises the legitimate autonomy of the temporal sphere. Yet, he says that “Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life; its origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has more to do with ethics” (#28). In deciding what justice means for the state and how it can be achieved, a legitimate role opens up for faith. Applying faith to questions of justice, argues the Holy Father, does not mean there is an attempt to impose religion on nonbelievers. Rather, it can purify human reason, enabling it to appreciate better the demands of justice. As well, the Church's social teaching is also based on reason and natural law, and is therefore in accord with the nature of every human being. Far from promoting a specific political programme, the Church seeks to stimulate and form consciences so that each person will be better prepared to take up his responsibility in ensuring a more just society. It is this subsequent political involvement which "cannot be the Church's immediate responsibility," and that means the Church should not be involved in partisan politics.